Characterizing the Non-linear Relationship Between Capacity and Collaboration in Urban Energy and Climate Initiatives

By Rachel M. Krause (University of Kansas), Christopher V. Hawkins (University of Central Florida), and Angela Y. S. Park (Kansas State University)

In the wake of the United States’ initiation of its formal withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the continued commitment of city governments is serving, for some, as a beacon of hope. However, although there are many examples of cities achieving significant reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions, individual local governments cannot generate the necessary scale of changes alone. The emphasis that both scholarly and practitioner-focused studies place on understanding the dynamics that facilitate successful inter-jurisdictional and inter-organizational collaborations around local climate and energy objectives reflect this recognition.

Most existing research hypothesizes and finds evidence supporting a simple linear relationship between human capacity and organizational collaboration, whereby higher capacity cities are also more collaborative. Our recent UAR paper takes a more nuanced look at this dynamic. Utilizing data from 428 US cities, we consider the factors that influence city governments’ decisions to work with a variety of governmental and private entities on energy efficiency and climate protection and find evidence of a curvilinear relationship between cities’ overall human capacity and the degree of external collaboration in which they are engaged. At lower levels, increases in capacity lead to greater collaboration. However, the size of that effect diminishes and eventually turns negative, suggesting that, at high levels of internal capacity, additional collaborative partnerships are relatively less advantageous.

Our research starts from the premise that, despite the many benefits that can result from collaboration, it also entails risk (e.g. will partners follow through as promised?) and cost (e.g. information gathering, negotiation, monitoring). As a result, cities have incentive to be selective about who they collaborate with. According to resource dependency theory, policy actors search for and accrue resources that are both material and nonmaterial in nature in order to carry out their mission and achieve their goals. The underlying assumption is that organizations operate in uncertain and fluctuating environments that are shaped by scarcity, unpredictability, functional specialization, and a lack of control over critical resources. As a result, they develop strategies, including coordinating with external entities, to reduce the uncertainty of obtaining difficult-to-acquire resources that are essential for organizational survival.  Engaging in collaborative networks represents one strategy for cities to manage external dependencies and uncertainties and buffer against turbulent conditions in their resource environment.

Low capacity cities have incentive to expand their collaborative network to better ensure that necessary resources can be obtained. At the same time, they may be less adept at achieving collaboration. Low capacity cities face the challenge of having fewer resources to devote to pursue collaborations while also being viewed more cautiously by potential partners. They may be perceived as bringing less to the table and as being at higher risk for not following through on agreements. This leads to the general expectation that greater administrative capacity has a positive effect on the extent of cities’ collaboration. 

However, this effect may diminish after a point. Cities with particularly high administrative capacity often make significant internal investments to gain technology, equipment, or expertise in specialized functional areas. In the current context, cities that have made investments related to climate and energy–such as by hiring specialized staff or completing a local greenhouse gas emissions inventory or energy audit–have enhanced ability to pursue initiatives “in-house”. It is reasonable to expect that, relative to other cities, those with particularly high capacity are less dependent on external partners for benefits and gain fewer resources from expanding their number of collaborators. This enables them to avoid the additional transaction costs that accompany building and maintaining an extensive collaborative network, while also maintaining organizational autonomy. Thus, these high capacity cities may engage in collaborative networks less extensively, resulting in a concave relationship between capacity and collaboration extent.

While retaining traditional measures as controls, this paper offers a new approach to operationalize city governments’ human capacity around sustainability by counting the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff they employ across ten different sustainability-related functions. Although not all of the employees in our variable count are directly involved in energy and climate issues, they work in city units that intersect with and often help implement relevant initiatives. The square of this broad measure of capacity enables the presence of a non-linear relationship to be assessed. Regression results show that when a city has no sustainability related staff, the addition of 100 such FTEs increases its collaboration score by .462 on a scale of 0 to 28. The size of this impact is modest, but considering that the largest number of sustainability-related FTEs for a city in our sample is 4,050, it adds up. At the same time, the significant negative quadratic term suggests that this effect is not constant and decreases slightly (by 0.014) with every additional 100 FTE. The effect turns negative and begins to reduce the scope of cities’ collaboration at just over 1,600 sustainability-related staff. See figure 1 below.


Figure 1: Relationship between the number of FTE employees and the extent of cities’ collaboration with external partners

These results caution against assumptions that additional investments in administrative capacity have an indefinite positive effect on the scope of the collaboration. Collaborations require transaction costs as well as risk, and high-capacity cities may determine it is easier to operate on their own in some areas. Specifically, the ability to produce information through greater investments in internal capacity may enable cities to more selectively work with fewer organizations that complement available resource commitments.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Rachel M. Krause is associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas and director of its Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program. Her research focuses on local governance, urban sustainability policy, and municipal climate protection initiatives.

Christopher V. Hawkins is associate professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida. His research focuses on urban politics, metropolitan governance, and urban sustainability policy.

Angela Y. S. Park is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. Her research focuses on understanding the key challenges facing local governments in delivering sustainability services and programs and what enables them to overcome these challenges. She is particularly interested in the effects of institutional arrangements in dealing with the issues of interagency coordination and performance management.

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